As the end of her 2020 mayoral campaign neared, Sheila Dixon said she wouldn’t run for mayor again if she lost the race. Three years later, however, the former Baltimore mayor may be staging another potential comeback.
First there was a June appearance in which Fox 45 host Armstrong Williams referred to Dixon as a candidate for mayor. She didn’t correct him. Then, during a July fundraiser for former spokesman and friend Anthony McCarthy, he all but announced Dixon’s candidacy.
“You may be able to vote for her again very soon,” he teased.
By the end of July, a super political action committee, Better Baltimore PAC, registered with the state elections board in support of Dixon. She says she has no knowledge of the fundraising effort.
So is the one-time mayor once again a candidate? Dixon, who will turn 70 this year, maintains she is undecided but “strongly considering” a bid.
“I’ve always respected and been grateful for people having confidence in my ability to really get this city back and get the city moving in a consistent manner,” Dixon said. “I have a lot of respect for the current administration, the current mayor. I also know people are frustrated in the way government is being run.”
Dixon said she recently polled for the race, but has not yet seen results.
If Dixon enters the May 14 Democratic primary race, she will immediately present a formidable challenge for first-term Mayor Brandon Scott. Scott, 39, narrowly bested Dixon in 2020 amid a large field of other candidates, collecting just 30% of the vote. Baltimore has nearly 11 times more registered Democratic voters than Republicans, so the primary typically determines the outcome of the race.
Scott capitalized last time on the crowded field, building a coalition of younger voters that spread across racial boundaries.
A Baltimore Sun, the University of Baltimore and WYPR-FM poll at the time showed Dixon had a strong base among Black voters, many of whom named crime as their top concern. Her campaign emphasized her success in driving down the city’s homicide rate. When she was mayor from 2007 to 2010, the annual homicide count in Baltimore dropped from 282 to 238 and arrests declined.
Scott has made the crime fight a centerpiece of his administration, as well, to mixed results. He’s created a Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and pumped millions of dollars into its holistic crime fighting methods. The homicide rate, however, has remained above 300 deaths a year, as it has each year since 2015.
To date, the possible field for the 2024 race remains significantly smaller than the 24 Democratic candidates in the previous mayoral cycle. With the Feb. 9 primary candidate filing deadline approaching, only Scott has committed to running.
Democratic City Comptroller Bill Henry, also in his first four-year term, considered a mayoral bid, but decided to seek reelection after conducting a poll for his campaign.
Former candidate for mayor and Baltimore state’s attorney Thiru Vignarajah has maintained a public profile, leaving many to wonder if he will enter the race. Vignarajah placed a distant fourth in his run for mayor in 2020.
He was runner-up to State’s Attorney Ivan Bates in the 2022 Democratic primary, two weeks after The Sun reported he punished people he worked with in the city prosecutor’s office and the state attorney general’s office for perceived disloyalty and humiliated them in front of colleagues.
Vignarajah told The Sun this summer: “I’m not thinking about the mayor’s race right now.” Asked if that meant he had ruled out a bid, he repeated that statement. Then he added:
“If we’re serious about tackling crime and corruption, surely our only options can’t be Brandon and Sheila. That would put the city in a real tough spot.”
Two lesser-known candidates, Democrats Wendell Hill-Freeman and Wendy Bozel, have filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections to seek the nomination for mayor.
Asked about the prospect of a Dixon candidacy, Scott’s campaign touted his investments in education and recreation, as well as a significant downward trend in homicides this year. Those are the things that will determine the outcome of the election, Scott’s campaign said in a statement.
“Voters know that if you’re attacking the person currently doing the job then it’s because you have no plan to do the job better,” the campaign said. “The citizens deserve better than that.”
Mileah Kromer, a pollster and associate professor of political science at Goucher College, said any analysis of a Scott-Dixon rematch depends heavily on whether another candidate with a recognizable name and qualifications enters the race.
In 2020, Dixon leaned on a solid base of voters. But there were a total of seven candidates who finished with at least 5% of the vote, including Vignarajah, well-financed former T. Rowe Price executive Mary Miller and the mayor at the time, Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
Kromer said Scott, then the City Council president, managed to build a broader coalition.
“A coalition can be really strong, especially if the base is divided up in other areas,” Kromer said.
Whether Scott can maintain that coalition built in 2020 remains in question. T.J. Smith, a talk-show host on WBAL-AM and another 2020 Democratic mayoral candidate, said he hears from some listeners who feel a sense of buyer’s remorse with Scott.
“They wanted to give Mayor Scott a chance, but they’re not necessarily happy with what Mayor Scott has done,” he said.
Scott’s voters last election tended to be more progressive, Smith said. If they’re dissatisfied now, however, they may have no place to go. If Dixon runs, she wouldn’t run to the left of the incumbent, and so far, no one more progressive has entered the fray, he said.
“Are they going to have an alternative? Are they going to not vote for mayor or do they come back home saying that’s the best option for that philosophy of thinking?” Smith asked. “If someone more progressive were to get in the race, if I’m him, I would be certainly nervous.”
The Better Baltimore super PAC that registered in support of Dixon lists as its campaign manager Tyler Senecharles, an account manager with Baltimore communications and campaign consultants Adeo Advocacy. The firm worked with Young in 2020, according to state campaign finance records.
Thus far, Scott holds a distinct monetary advantage: he had more than $450,000 in the bank at the time of the most recent required state campaign fundraising report in January, after raising about $250,000 during 2022. Dixon’s campaign committee reported less than $5,000 in on hand, with no money raised last year.
The 2020 mayoral primary victory cost Scott more than $984,000. Dixon spent about $742,000.
Maryland Policy & Politics
If she chooses to enter the race, Dixon would again face the challenge of public perception surrounding her 2010 conviction for embezzling gift cards intended for people with low incomes. As part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge in the case, she resigned as mayor, was on probation for four years and could not seek office during that time.
Kaye Whitehead, a radio host on WEAA-FM and associate professor at Loyola University, said the Baltimoreans who forgave Dixon did so long ago. Those that haven’t are unlikely to turn around now, she said.
In any case, she said, the issue might not matter in the current political climate. While the homicide rate appears to be dropping, residents have been airing their frustrations with youth violence, she said. The July 2 shooting at the annual Brooklyn Day festival in South Baltimore that killed two and injured 28, most of them children, was a “line-in-the-sand moment,” Whitehead said.
An internal police after-action review of the shooting, which made national headlines, was promised within 45 days, a mark that passed earlier this month without a report being released to the public. A Baltimore City Council hearing on the shooting is set for Sept. 13.
“When we have a line-in-the-sand moment — and we’ve had a few — you can feel it. People are restless for change,” Whitehead said. She likened the situation to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody during the mayoralty of Democrat Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the downfall of Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh, who was convicted of fraud involving her “Healthy Holly” book series.
At the same time, Baltimore residents tend to gravitate toward their own, she said. None of the last few mayors have been new to city politics, even in times of upheaval, she said.
“Baltimore tends to reach for the familiar in times of uncertainty,” she said. “Sheila Dixon is familiar.”